Test your STEM credentials here

This is one of my favourite roadside signs, advertising what is an ‘architecturally distinguished and well-appointed‘ hotel, a stop on the West Highland line and also on the route of the West Highland Way (although it’s not one of the recognised overnight points). There’s two of these signs in place (this actually being the one on the southbound carriageway of the A82); the northern-bound one, just following a recharging stop for our electric car in Crianlarich or Tyndrum, is placed just after one welcoming you to the Gàidhealtachd and before the road winds up over the Water of Tulla and on into the peatbog wilds of Rannoch Moor and the awe-inspiring grandeur of Glencoe; the place that, among other things, has launched a million Christmas shortbread tins and, these days, a million Skyfall selfies, whether Aston Martin or Nissan Leaf.

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Snapped last weekend here through the windscreen of a car moving at speed, this has long been a signpost for me, heralding far more than just locational positioning but representing a physical divide between lowlands and highlands, and (going north) a mental one between the old and the new, and particularly a point in response to the islands’ beckoning call.

But, about checking for those STEM credentials: looking at the sign, and amidst its gentle advertisement for a dimly-lit cosy bar, basking in the warm glow of a log fire, bare boards on the floor and a pint of the landlord’s finest on the table in front of you, what was your initial reaction?

1. Hmm. Bridge. Wonder if I can get a game?

2. Bridge, eh: do they still play that thing? Maybe I can watch for a bit and see how they do it…

3. Bridge. Yes, but beam, arch or suspension? (The answer is here.)

If you first thought (1) or (2), then possibly a career in STEM is not for you; if (3), your country and, of course, your union, absolutely needs you. Sign up as quick as you can.

The Free Church roots of American gospel

‘Never read the comments’ is long-standing advice for people on the net (aside of this very blog, of course, where there is a very interesting discussion going on right now about Celtic linguistic references to ‘the English’). But, sometimes it does pay off – and one of the recent obituaries to the sadly-departed Aretha Franklin in The Guardian provides one such example where one fairly prolific commentator on the site – a ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ – argued in the comments that:

‘Franklin was the supreme representative of a tradition that brought together European (Scottish) call and response church worship with African tribal chant. As such, she was the legitimate voice of a United States that was founded on both of those diverse cultures.’

Well, that was news to this reader, for whom Aretha’s voice and stance represented probably the apotheosis of the spine-chilling call both to the church as well as to civil and women’s rights. Challenged to come up with some evidence for this, ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ produced two sources: a YouTube video introduced by Phil Cunningham, the well-known accordeon player, and Calum Martin (who also features in this slightly longer, separate video); and a piece in The Independent which identified that there is academic support for such a view from one Professor Ruff, a musician and professor at Yale University. Given the history also of the involvement in the slave trade of representatives of the Scottish wealth and land-owning classes, which is well documented and which also features in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, for example, there may well be substantive merit in what Ruff says. We should ignore the more hyperbolic and less well-researched aspects of his reported comments, while observing the notion that maverick academics are not an entirely unknown quantity. I’m not at all well placed to comment on aspects of the black experience, and I can only imagine the reaction among the black community to the view that gospel singing stems, in part, from the singing and oral traditions of a section of their oppressors. (Interestingly, The Independent piece has no comments.) However, the video is well worth a look for those who haven’t yet come across the tradition of Gàidhlig psalm singing: it’s both emotional and quite beautiful; and also contributes to an understanding of some of the traditions of some contemporary singers and musicians from the Western Isles.

There are some clear similarities in the styles, at least at the superficial level, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly convinced that there is that much in the way of actual influence from one to the other. Clearly, even traditions which do share some commonalities in their roots are likely to diverge over the centuries and over the thousands of miles which separate modern day experiences from the ones which came to form them. With this in mind, we should perhaps not be troubled too much by the gap created by the incongruity between a white (and apparently largely older male) congregation, sitting down and singing from hymn books, and a black, mixed and substantially much more mobile and youthful one.

There is, however, at least one aspect of commonality which is worth considering. We know that working class highland communities have suffered much as a result of the Clearances (and then the potato famines) with large, but unknown numbers probably counting in the several tens of thousands of able-bodied men and women evicted from the Highlands, their homes and belongings burned in an act of ‘wreckless terrorism’, and forced into exile in Canada, in the Carolinas of the US and in Australia, with devastating impacts on those cleared as well as on the old and the very young who were left behind to fend for themselves. I should be clear that I’m not equating the destinies of those subject to the Clearances with those sold (also from substantially agrarian societies, by the way) into the slave trade, the conditions of the migration and the method of transportation being cruel, inhuman and deathly on the one hand but brutal, dehumanising and murderous on the other. Nevertheless, the pain and suffering caused by rupture, both on those forced to leave and also on those left behind, is perhaps one thing which might well be held in common between Free Chuch congregations and those of the US gospel south and which might well contribute some of any similiarities between the styles of singing.

Peter Alan Ross, in his beautiful elegy on the occasion of Runrig’s Last Dance, a band for whose songwriters, coming as they do from North Uist, Gàidhlig psalm singing was also a part of their traditions and upbringing, notes that Bruce Guthro, when he joined the band, was a Novia Scotian. His approach to singing reflected the themes of emigration and loss about which the MacDonalds were writing and that his joining the band, at least to some degree, represented a taking back of one of our own. If there are similarities between gospel traditions and the approach of Gàidhlig psalm singers, it must surely be in the pain and sorrow of communities ruptured by external forces and from economic systems that saw people either as a source of profit or otherwise as a barrier to it.

The Legendary Park Bar

In Glasgow at the weekend and, following a walk along the River Kelvin and through the grounds and museum at Kelvingrove – still no pub called The Kelvin, I note, dammit, anywhere in the area – we wound up for a few whiskies and a bit of entertainment at the legendary Park Bar, just a few hundred yards from the museum. Star of novels and radio productions (forthcoming), The Park Bar is a bit of a legend amongst Uibhisteach and western isles folk more generally – and with very good reason as it is something of a home-from-home down there in Baile Mòr offering traditional music, good food and drink, some familiar faces, experiences and points of reference and a bit of a chat (not least when Runrig are also playing The Last Dance, and the islands have therefore emptied).

Satisfying myself with a few Schiehallions before switching to a Bruichladdich (or two), and enjoying Scott Harvey‘s slimmed-down trio of keyboard, accordion and drums, I couldn’t help a wry smile at this sign posted to the wall just to the right of the wee stage and warning of the Park Bar’s zero tolerance policy:

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An image which is somewhat shaky (and therefore reduced in size here as full scale really does appear like the lens has been smeared with vaseline), not as a result of the Bruichladdich(s), I swear, but genuinely as a result of being bumped by dancers doing their best to throw a few Highland shapes in a bar that was *absolutely mobbed*. That’s the story I’m sticking to, anyway.

Yep, it was a great night!

Primaries, Uist-style

Some bold primary colors from Friday last week here on Uist, with the red of the dinghy and the blues of the sky, the sea and the prawn boat complemented by the green kite of the kite surfer, brilliantly catching the late afternoon sun.

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Truth to tell, we’ve not had a lot of days like this recently – May and June were lovely on Uist but July and August – in contrast to the heatwave across most of the rest of the country – has been cool and damp. Today, we’re back to grey clouds and rain, and, with the schools also going back tomorrow, and us also lighting the first fire of autumn, there is an end-of-summer feel about the place and this sort of picture is likely to become increasingly a rarity. For this year, anyway.

We also don’t get a lot of kite surfers off Mol Mor (the beach at Kilaulay, on the opposite shore of this photo). The spring tides we’ve had in the past week not only strand the prawn boats when moored and not in use at low tide,  but also expose the rocky reefs that radiate out from the beach like the bony spines of long-buried dinosaurs. These are hazardous to boats and to kite surfers alike, unless they really know what they’re doing and, with our winds, there’s always the danger of a mis-calculation or a mis-step which might well bring disaster or, at least, a nasty gash on the leg. However, the tide is pretty full here, submerging the reefs under a cover of water that might, to some degree, act to cushion a fall, so this one seems to be aware of the potential threat.

More days and scenes, including kite surfers with colourful kites, like these would certainly be very welcome; although I know how envious just about everyone else is of temperatures as cool as 16C (61F) and an afternoon of steady, and refreshing, drizzle!